ThatsRacin

Wild Roval finish was a huge victory for Ryan Blaney, Charlotte and NASCAR

Say what you will about the inaugural Roval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway — that half the field ended up mangled or shredded, that there were overwhelming crests of relief and disappointment, that — but there’s only one thing overly apparent, a lone point of consensus, after Sunday’s race:

It was a complete and total success.

Now, critics won’t be so easy on the Roval. They’ll complain that it’s not conventional driving, that the irregular oval-road course hybrid isn’t “how NASCAR should be.”

They’ll lament the wreckage in the final seven laps that drastically altered not only the course of the race but of the playoffs for a handful of drivers.

At the same time, they’ll also whine about how boring it was, how those two wrecks at the end salvaged an otherwise ordinary, boring race.

And you know what?

They’re wrong. Completely, totally wrong.

Know how you can tell? The post-race scene. Walking up and down pit road after Ryan Blaney’s victory, his first this season, you could glean everything you needed to know about whether or not the Roval was a success.

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Several NASCAR drivers, including then-leader Brad Keselowski (2), were involved in a huge wreck with less than 10 laps to go in Sunday’s inaugural Bank of America ROVAL 400. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

First, the cars, and what a mess they were.

Whether by virtue of “The Big One” on Lap 103 — when Brad Keselowski careened straight into the wall in Turn 1, bounced out into the open road, and took seemingly half the field with him in a series of follow-up crashes — or the last-lap debacle where Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr., both vying for the win, spun out and into one another, not a car finished the race damage-less.

Some, such as Blaney’s, had just a few scrapes or nicks around the edges. Others, such as Kyle Larson’s, had huge sheets of metal peeled back and jagged like torn paper, practically skeletons of how they began.

That’s how you know some stuff just went down.

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Then there were the drivers themselves, all still trying to answer the same question: “What just happened?”

Ultimately, with this experimental track as a playoff cutdown race, four guys had to be eliminated. The first three — Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, and Denny Hamlin — were decided early on, either by nature of crashing out or needing a win to advance. But then the final elimination came down to a 12th-place tie in points between Johnson, Aric Almirola, and Kyle Larson ... and not even those three knew what happened.

Johnson ended up as the odd man out because of his finishes the past three races, and once that became known, you could see the hope fade from his face. His eyes wandered, his expression tightened.

The reality of his unlikely elimination set in.

And Almirola, well he hardly understood what happened. Literally seconds before he entered a post-race press conference — and even during at times — Almirola was asking how he had made the cut.

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Leading indicator

But the most glaring, obvious way you could tell the Roval worked was by the fans.

More people than have visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in years were packed into the grandstands to see ... something, even if they didn’t quite know what to expect.

And as the mayhem with Truex and Johnson ensued in the final 100 yards of the race, those same mobs of fans all called out together, a visceral reaction to the scene unfolding in front of them.

And man, did they ever keep cheering.

“The roar from the fans was all I needed to know that that was the moment that everybody will remember for a long time,” Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. president, said after the race. “I think it was certainly more than I had expected and hoped for in terms of the excitement for our fans.”

The Roval was a complete gamble, Smith’s brainchild that he has tweaked and tinkered with for years. Charlotte, as has been the case thoughout much of NASCAR’s history, was merely the guinea pig on which he chose to experiment.

With the way the race played out, everyone who is a NASCAR fan or works in the industry should be glad he did.

Gambles, whether on a smaller scale or something as significant as the Roval, are always just that. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. But at this point in NASCAR’s history and standing in the American sports landscape, the Roval should be proof to accept and lean into even more of those gambles.

Different track, different outcome

If NASCAR had never trusted Smith to build this — if they’d gone with the same ol’ oval track, cars going untouched for hours and hours without anyone passing for the lead — it would have meant accepting the same old results. It would have meant accepting fewer fans in attendance, more declines in television viewership, and an overall lurch toward the irrelevance of the sport.

Instead, NASCAR rolled the dice. It gambled. It prayed that a new track would produce excitement, wrecks, drama, chaos ... and it did all of that and then some.

“I think this was way more exciting probably than any football game on right now, which is pretty cool,” Smith said. “This is new highlight footage for NASCAR.”

Smith said after the race that his metric for deeming the Roval a “success” was about highlight-worthy moments. In that case, he certainly got what he wanted.

But in truth, the Roval was more than highlight-worthy. It was about more than a wreck here or there.

It was about the unpredictable, about poking the stagnancy of NASCAR with a stick and daring it to produce something more compelling. It was about upending the status quo, ignoring the conventional, and finding a real reason to drive new fans to the track.

It was about, even if just for a day, making NASCAR something worth getting excited about again.

And in all of those regards, there’s only one thing you could say about the Roval:

Mission accomplished.

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